The Los Angeles Bus Riders Union

Against the Current, No. 69, July/August 1997

Scott Miller

SEVEN MONTHS AFTER forcing the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to sign a landmark consent decree, in which the agency agreed to stop violating the civil rights of its overwhelmingly low-income and of color ridership, leaders of the LA-based Bus Riders Union now say that the MTA shows no sign of honoring its promises.

The future of the agreement is in jeopardy.  Although BRU members had initially hoped to use the out-of-court settlement as a way to “leverage” future demands, they are now in an urgent struggle to protect even the minimal provisions of the agreement.

Approved last October by a federal judge, the consent decree settled a class-action civil rights lawsuit brought by the Labor/Community Strategy Center, the Bus Riders Union, the Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates and others against the MTA for creating and maintaining a two-tiered, separate and unequal system of public transportation.

After a two-year struggle in the courts, in the streets and on the buses, the agency agreed to lower fares, improve service and provide bus riders with a say in future decisions affecting public transportation.

While the rest of California, and much of the country, has moved to destroy the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, the Bus Riders Union succeeded in expanding the rights of low-income people of color.  Despite some limitations and loopholes, the consent decree is perhaps the most important victory against effective racial segregation in public transit since the days of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott.

The Bus Riders Union began as an outgrowth of the Labor/Community Strategy Center’s “Equity in Transportation Project,” a policy analysis group which formed in 1992 to study the transportation problems of the urban poor. What they discovered was an increasingly polarized allocation of public resources based on race.

According to MTA’s own figures, 81 percent of bus riders are people of color, while more than 60 percent have annual household incomes of less than $15,000.  Although buses carry 94 percent of the ridership, they receive only 30 percent of MTA subsidies; conversely, MTA rail projects serve only about 6 percent of all riders (a disproportionate percentage of whom are white), but receive over 70 percent of public transit dollars.

The Strategy Center also discovered perhaps the single largest hemorrhaging of a bus system in the history of the United States.  As MTA repeatedly ransacked its bus capital and operations budgets in order to build expensive rail projects, the active bus fleet declined from about 3000 during the 1984 Olympic Games to under 1700 today.  In the same period, the County’s population increased by approximately 15 percent.

This historic pattern of racial and class discrimination provided the basis for a legal challenge based on the Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits government agencies from distributing money in a racially discriminatory fashion, and on the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Strategy Center staff were already organizing in April 1994, when more than 800 angry bus riders protested at an MTA meeting against plans to eliminate the monthly pass. But it was not until late summer of that year, when the MTA Board voted to raise fares, cut service and use $126 million for a light-rail extension to Pasadena, that the Strategy Center filed its lawsuit and created the Bus Riders Union.

The Limits of the Law

From the beginning, organizers deployed legal tactics without illusions; they used the civil rights lawsuit as a way to talk to bus riders, community allies, the media and anyone who would listen, about broader issues of environmental racism, economic justice and how to redirect the priorities of government agencies away from corporate interests and towards the needs of working people.

The organization eventually developed a comprehensive “Billions for Buses Plan” calling for a doubling of the bus fleet, extensive pilot projects with clean-fuel technologies, a $.50 fare and a $20 monthly pass, an elected MTA Board and contracting preferences for local bus manufacturers who would provide high-wage union jobs to an inner city devastated by corporate capital flight and bi- partisan “welfare reform.”

Settlement and Division

Although most BRU members had hoped to “have their day in court” and win a finding of liability against MTA transit racism, in October 1996 the Planning Committee-the BRU’s leadership body of elected representatives and staff-took the important decision to settle the suit.

Most Planning Committee members felt that they had come up against the limits of a legal system stacked against them, and that, under the circumstances, it was best to take what bourgeois law had to offer and move on to the next phase of the struggle.

The decision coincided, however, with a very serious and, unfortunately, very public disagreement between the main plaintiffs (BRU, LCSC, KIWA and four named individuals) and their attorneys over what BRU regarded as a particularly odious clause in the proposed settlement.

That controversial clause, ostensibly, would provide for the creation of a “low-income pass.”  In fact, however, requiring that applicants prove their eligibility (i.e. poverty) through documentation and means-testing would have made MTA into an intelligence-gathering arm of the police, the INS and other government agencies.

Through a complicated and precedent-setting maneuver called “limited substitution,” the individual and organizational plaintiffs initiated a judge’s ruling which, while not removing the clause altogether, effectively blocked the possibility of its future implementation.

As for MTA, by signing the consent decree, it agreed to make the bus system its highest priority and to eliminate disparities in subsidies and service.  Specifically, it agreed to:

  1. Reduce overcrowding on the most overcrowded bus system in the country, so that by the year 2004 no more than eight people will be standing on any bus at any time;
  2. Develop a 50-bus pilot project to expand service to under- served areas;
  3. Lower the price of the monthly and semi-monthly passes and create a new $11 weekly pass; and,
  4. Maintain the current cash fare for a minimum of two years and to index any future fare hikes against the average household income of the poorest 25% of the County’s population.

Potentially the most important component of the agreement, however, is the creation of a Joint Working Group (JWG) which provides the BRU with a more public arena in which to pressure the MTA. The JWG is a partly administrative, partly consultative body set up to monitor implementation of the agreement and comprised of an equal number of BRU and MTA representatives.

Although BRU leaders acknowledge that the JWG’s powers are limited, its structure and composition amount to a recognition of the BRU as the exclusive bargaining agent for bus riders in Los Angeles.

Stonewalling and Sabotage

Predictably, MTA has attempted to sabotage virtually every provision in the agreement.  Instead of buying new buses to reduce overcrowding, MTA has announced plans to extend the life of older buses-some already more than 15 years old. (The previous replacement schedule had been twelve years or 500,000 miles).

MTA staff has also begun floating plans in the JWG to substitute “smart shuttles” and mini-vans for standard 43- seat buses, claiming that the agreement calls only for “vehicles” rather than “buses.”

For the new service pilot project, MTA hopes to resurrect 50 retired buses from a neighboring municipal operator, and eventually to return to buying cheaper, but environmentally disastrous, diesel buses, instead of compressed natural gas (CNG) or other clean-fuel buses.

But in the seven months since signing the consent decree, the agency has yet to order even a single bus-despite staff admissions that some 1200 buses need replacing.

Furthermore, the MTA Board has continued to waste substantial sums of money on rail construction.  In February, it decided to use $300 million in bus eligible federal money for further subway construction, despite a provision in the consent decree that requires that all previously uncommitted funds go to bus.

And while the agency’s most recent request for federal ISTEA money contains a substantially larger amount for buses than in years past, MTA has made clear in its testimony before Congress, that buses would be the first item sacrificed when Congressional budget-balancers go to work.

Even where the agency has created the appearance of going beyond the minimal provisions of the consent decree, as with fare restructuring, its efforts are best described as tokenistic.  A current staff proposal to introduce an off- peak cash fare of $.75 would apply only between the hours of 9pm and 5am, which would affect only about two percent of all riders.

In short, as costly rail projects continue to overextend the agency’s fiscal capacity, staff have been instructed by the MTA Board to find the cheapest possible way to appear to comply with the consent decree.

At a special bus workshop in late March at which the MTA Board was to consider competing bus system improvement proposals from MTA staff and the BRU, Board members listened in shock as the BRU gave its presentation and itemized the costs of fulfilling the consent decree: an estimated $1.4 billion over ten years, or more than twice the amount cited in the MTA staff proposal.

Privately, MTA Board members admitted that the BRU proposal was the better plan, though publicly none was willing to offer support.  When the Board decided to postpone the vote, BRU activists took over the meeting, chanting “Stop the lying, start the buying, buy the buses now!”

Fighting Transit Racism

As a self-consciously multiracial and multilingual organization, the BRU is an attempt to confront some of the deep racial and ethnic contradictions within the working class, a task which the organization sees as a prerequisite for successful class struggle.

In an extremely diverse but also extremely segregated city, the BRU’s main slogan, “Fight transit racism!” says to low- income and transit-dependent whites (almost 20 percent of the MTA’s ridership): If you want safe, clean, affordable and reliable transportation, then you need to join the struggle for civil rights, to fight on the same side with people of color.

The BRU has effectively seized public transportation as an issue for the left, and built an independent base of more than 1200 members.  When the organization has had to work with Democratic politicians, the labor bureaucracy and other gate keepers, it has done so without compromising its own explicitly left agenda or its vitality as a social movement with a genuinely mass character.

Based on the notion of an anti-corporate united front, a movement of working people and all people of color, leftist intellectuals and others who oppose the increasingly arrogant power of capital, the BRU has become an important place where the city’s left can engage seriously with the problems and concerns of working people.

Even so, the BRU has had an uneven relationship to organized labor.  On the one hand, it has developed good working relationships with some of Southern California’s more militant unions, including UNITE and the Garment Workers Justice Center, HERE Local 11, SEIU Local 399 and the recently-formed SEIU Local 1877 (“Justice for Janitors”).

More problematic, however, has been the BRU’s relationship with its most logical ally: bus drivers.  Despite regular contact with many operators, including some who are BRU members, the drivers’ union, the United Transportation Union, has been slow to endorse the BRU and its “Billions for Buses” plan.

The most likely terrain on which a labor/community coalition for public transportation could develop has been, and continues to be, privatization.  Historically, the BRU has refused various offers from MTA to “improve” the bus system through outsourcing and other “cost-cutting” measures.

Recently, MTA staff have presented a “Bus System Improvement Plan” (which calls for the elimination of 670 jobs by subcontracting 65 lines in the next two years) as a way to “garner support for management objectives as we approach contract negotiations with our labor unions.”

With a June 30 deadline for MTA/ UTU contract renewal, BRU organizers are pursuing the possibility of a joint public forum to build community support for a comprehensive regional bus system that simultaneously serves riders and expands high-paying union jobs in the public sector.

Scott Miller is a member of the Planning Committee of the Bus Riders Union and a member of SOLIDARITY.

ATC 69, July-August 1997